Laureation address: Professor Mary Beard

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters 
Laureation by Professor Stephen Halliwell, School of Classics

Friday 13 September 2013

‘The study of the classics is what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves... if we were to amputate the classics from the modern world it would mean more than closing down some university departments and consigning Latin grammar to the scrap heap. It would mean bleeding wounds in the body of Western culture – and a dark future of misunderstanding.’

That quotation from a lecture given by Professor Mary Beard in New York in 2011 conveys something of the intense conviction she has brought not just to practising as one of the leading classical historians of her generation but also to changing the public face of her subject. No other classicist alive today has so effectively combined professional excellence in the study of ancient Greek and Roman culture with a pre-eminent ability to communicate the interest and importance of such research to a wider audience. In doing so, Mary Beard has developed a unique voice and style which characterise all her work – more than a dozen books, extensive journalism, popular television documentaries, and a long-running and high-profile blog.

Born in Much Wenlock, Shropshire, the daughter of an architect father and a headmistress mother, Mary Beard’s precocious intelligence found itself drawn during her teenage years to the excitement of trying to discover and interpret antiquity for herself partly through the experience of archaeological digs in her summer vacations. She attended Shrewsbury High School, went on to read Classics at Newnham College Cambridge, and stayed in Cambridge to write a PhD thesis on Roman religion (one of her abiding specialities), though even before the thesis was completed she was appointed to her first academic post, a lectureship at King’s College London, in 1979. In 1984 she moved back to her old Cambridge college, becoming a Fellow of Newnham and University Lecturer in Classics. She has remained in Cambridge ever since: promotion to a readership came in 1999 and a personal professorship in 2004.

Recent years have seen her accumulating distinctions of numerous kinds. In 2008 she was Sather Visiting Professor at Berkeley, the most prestigious post of its kind in Classics anywhere in the world: she delivered six Sather lectures (soon to be published in book form) on the deeply serious subject of Roman laughter. Other visiting posts have included professorships at the Getty Research Institute in California and at the University of Paris. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2010 and a Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011, she was awarded the OBE (for services to classical scholarship) in the 2013 New Year Honours list, and she currently holds the additional position of Royal Academy of Arts Professor of Ancient Literature. Earlier this year she won the Classical Association Prize for her ‘significant contribution to the public understanding of Classics’. 

That curriculum vitae is of course very impressive in its own terms. But it cannot properly capture the remarkable process by which Mary Beard has become a compelling proselytizer for the inexhaustible fascination of the ancient world and an enlightening explorer of our complex relationship to that world. In her books, which cover a wide range of topics in both Greek and Roman religion, art, society and culture, she has mastered the difficult art of writing in ways which can command the attention of other scholars by their critical intelligence and challenging independence of thought, while at the same time remaining accessible and stimulating to a broader readership. A prime example is Pompeii: The life of a Roman Town, published in 2008, which investigates in engrossing detail the entire fabric and structure of Pompeian society, from its graffiti to its wall paintings, from its latrines to its temples. (The capacity to move effortlessly between the material conditions of everyday life and the big ideas and values which help shape a particular culture is one of Professor Beard’s talents as a historian.) But rather than simply amassing antiquarian information or seeking to sensationalise, Mary Beard constantly invites her readers – and this is another hallmark of her work – to ponder and question what we can and cannot know about the past, not so much telling them what to think as prompting them to think historically for themselves. The outstanding qualities of Pompeii were recognised by the award of the Wolfson Prize for History in 2008. They also lent themselves to translation into a different medium, forming the basis of a BBC2 documentary on Pompeii in 2010 (a documentary sufficiently noteworthy in its own right to earn a BAFTA nomination in 2011 – a unique achievement, I think, for a practising classical scholar).

Mary Beard’s passionate belief in the need for dialogue between academic ideas and the concerns of the general culture is well demonstrated by the weekly blog, ‘A Don’s Life’, which she has been writing for the Times Literary Supplement since 2006. Starting as a spin-off from her work as Classics reviews editor of the TLS (a role she had filled since 1992 and in which she has continued energetically to promote a conspicuous position for classics in the discourse of the educated public) the blog has proved strikingly successful, often receiving tens of thousands of hits in a week. It ranges over many aspects of modern life as observed from the vantage point of a shrewd Cambridge don, but displays an especially notable gift for weaving together classical and contemporary themes in an illuminating as well as entertaining manner: the discussion, in April 2007, of the origins of a Latin tattoo on David Beckham’s forearm is one delicious illustration. The blog is also refreshingly iconoclastic. In March 2008, for example, pointing out that the Olympic torch ceremony was largely an invention of Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics, Mary Beard suggested getting rid of what she called a ‘ridiculous, Fascist-inspired waste of money...which sends a Bunsen burner around the world at tremendous cost’ and involves ‘people dressed up in pseudo-ancient Greek costume’. In a nice demonstration that the direction of travel from traditional to modern media is not all in one direction, two collections of Mary Beard’s blogs have been published in book form. The first of those collections, It’s A Don’s Life, was longlisted for the blog section of the Orwell Prize in 2010.

The ancient Greeks and Romans left a permanent mark on the world in many domains – politics, philosophy, art, law, literature, and more besides. We badly need classical scholars who can not only sustain the best traditions of specialist research but also enable a larger audience to understand some of the multiple strands of history and culture which still connect us to antiquity. Mary Beard has risen to that challenge with extraordinary panache and commitment. For her dynamic contributions to Classics and her tireless work as a communicator of academic ideas to the wider public, she is the worthy recipient of an honorary doctorate on this special occasion.